So Where Are All the Atheists?

Earlier this week, the BBC published a set of opinions provocatively titled,”Why is faith falling in the US?” The story was attempting to bring a national focus to a survey of global religiosity and atheism from WIN-Gallup International.

The writers naturally came from two camps: Rod Dreher, who  thinks the decline in US numbers can be traced to the rise of Moral Therapeutic Deism (the new favorite conservative whipping boy, evidently); and on the left, by David Dickerson, who believes the decline arises from the conservative church’s political stands, notably that on homosexuality — oh, those traditional stick-in-the-muds.

While both views have merit in their US context — and in truth, I’m sympathetic to both — what  what is striking is how the actual survey  shows this decline in professed religiosity to be going on through a number of developed countries in the same 2005-2012 time frame. Much as we Americans like to hold to our exceptionalism, something ordinary seems to be happening,  the decline in faith of the middle class driven by economic conditions. That is, the loss of economic faith and its secular promised future undercuts our more transcendental view of the future, that God is in control.

This entwining of the transcendental and the secular hope does point in part to that Moral Therapeutic Deism that Dreher cites. Entwining can breed a sort of psychological syncretism where my life and my faith get intimately bound so that psychology and faith are nearly one and the same. Fortunately hope is a bit more powerful than that.

On a side note: The report has some other incredible data in it. For instance, while the US bemoans the number of atheists, it’s really small potatoes relative to the world. The survey found 5 percent self report as atheist, the same number as Saudi Arabia. In most of Europe the number is in the 10-15 percent range.

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